A Boulder wildland fire expert Tuesday discussed how forecasting and modeling could help improve firefighter safety, a timely discussion in the aftermath of the death of 19 firefighters in central Arizona.

The presentation given by Janice Coen, a scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, was part of the "Future of Forecasting" summit held by NCAR and the University Corp. for Atmospheric Research. She played a critical role in developing the first fire-atmosphere computer model.

"I want to emphasize that wildfires are a complex phenomenon," she said. "Like we saw, unfortunately, in Arizona this weekend, humans -- even highly trained firefighters who go through rigorous training and have immense support and resources -- can't integrate into their heads all of the factors that come together to cause fires to intensify suddenly."

Infrared images have helped scientists understand a fire phenomenon that is particularly dangerous to firefighters. Flame-throwing-like fingers travel at about 100 mph, shooting along the ground and leaving a flaming trail before collapsing within a couple of seconds.

"We think those are behind a lot of firefighter fatalities," Coen said.

Tuesday's conference showcased the scientific and technological discoveries happening in Boulder, and how forecasting can help mitigate wildfires, predict wind behavior for electricity-generating wind farms and reveal how terrain contributes to the formation of thunderstorms.

U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, D-Boulder, gave welcoming remarks.


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In an interview, Polis said he's excited about the possibility of public-private partnerships that could help Boulder's labs commercialize weather technology.

"I was excited to meet so many entrepreneurs and people from businesses who want to work with our labs," he said.

In Colorado, a drought encompassing 90 percent of the state combined with especially windy Junes have led to costly fires in recent years.

The applications of computer modeling that scientists in Boulder are developing for understanding fire patterns are far-reaching.

Coen explained how the technology can assist with firefighter and fire manager training to help demonstrate potential dangers when fuel, the weather and terrain come together. The modeling can also help professionals better plan prescribed burns to reduce the risk of them getting out of control. Models can also help with fire mitigation to limit the fire's effects on watersheds and air quality.

For the simulations, scientists allow the weather to drive the fire and direct where and how quickly it spreads. As the fire consumes fuel, it releases heat and water in the form of gas into the air above it. The air becomes more buoyant and warmer than the air that surrounds it. The fire, then, affects wind in its environment and creates its own weather.

Contact Camera Staff Writer Brittany Anas at 303-473-1132 or anasb@dailycamera.com.